Publisher's Note

Publisher's Note
What Grade is Your Content Comprehension?

Alexander Macris | 10 May 2010 13:00
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Have you ever read a newspaper article or Time magazine piece from the 1940s and thought to yourself, "Wow, this article is so intelligently written. The writing in modern mags and papers seems dumbed down in comparison." If so, you'd be right.

In the 1950s, two researchers, Rudolph Flesch and Robert Gunning, began working with newspapers and wire services to improve what they termed "readability." Readability is the degree to which words can be understood by readers. It is today measured by scores named after their inventors, the Flesch Reading Ease Score (1-100) and the Gunning-Fog Index (1-14+). The latter is the well-known "grade level" score of reading, as in "Reader's Digest is written at the 9th grade level."

At the time they did their research, most newspapers were written at the 12th grade level. Flesch and Gunning saw this as a bad thing; they believed that work should be written at a reading level that matches the reading comprehension score of the average American adult, which is around 8th-9th grade level. More importantly, they uncovered evidence that the lower the grade level of the writing (or the higher the readability, as they would euphemistically put it), the wider the circulation. Flesch and Gunning found that high-class magazines at the 12th grade level had circulation of less than 1 million, while pulp rags written at the 6th grade level circulated at more than 10 million.

The reason for the correlation is that consumers with low reading comprehension simply cannot enjoy work written at a higher grade level, regardless of its quality. Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has a Gunning-Fog Index of 19.2, suggesting that while it may be the most masterful work of historical analysis ever written, most college graduates (16th grade) can't even comprehend it. It will never be an Amazon best-seller, because there aren't enough people able to appreciate it.

Flesch and Gunning's circulation research convinced the newspapers of the day to adjust their writing from the 12th to the 9th grade level, while wire service dispatches went from the 16th to the 11th grade. Today, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world is written at the 9th grade level, the two magazines with the largest circulation in the world are written at the 9th grade level, most US best-selling novels are written at the 7th grade level, and the over 2000 romance novels sold annually for $1.63 billion are written at the 5th grade level.

Meanwhile, the famous comic book The Watchmen was written at what I calculated as the 7th grade level (a three-grade increase from what Flesch and Gunning claimed for comics). The popular "Orange Box" episode of Zero Punctuation had a Gunning-Fog Score of 13.6, 14th grade, meaning it's almost scientific writing. And this passage I wrote recently in my Check for Traps column - "Rules, in a tabletop RPG, are ultimately about what philosophers call action, where 'action' means intentional effects caused by an agent. It is the rules that dictate the results of action, and thus define the relationship between a player's choices and the consequence he experiences" - well, this passage had a Gunning-Fog Index of 14.40, or 15th grade. So I apologize if my writing makes no sense to those of you who only made it to 14th. Perhaps you might enjoy some writing about games at the 4th grade level?

Anyway, at the time that Gunning and Flesch did their seminal work, they limited it to reading (and, by extension, listening to spoken words over the radio), as those were the leading media of communication in their day.

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